We have just started the month of Nissan, a very special time of year. It is the month of Pesach, obviously, but the month of Nissan is of particular significance in the Jewish calendar. This significance relates to Pesach and to many other issues that we face in life.
Nissan is the first of the months of the year
One of the very first mitzvot given to the Jewish People as a nation was while we were still in Egypt, as recorded in Exodus, chapter 12. G-d said to Moses and Aaron Hachodesh hazeh lachem rosh chodashim, “this month will be for you the head of all the months.” What does it mean, “this month will be for you the head of all the months”?
One interpretation which is brought in the Talmud is that “this month” is referring to the new month, namely, the mitzvah of Rosh Chodesh; each time the new moon appears, the new month is declared. But there is another explanation for this verse and that is that “this month” is referring to the month of Nissan, “which will be for you the head of all the months.” The instruction was that Nissan be the first of the months. In essence, then, Moses and Aaron were given the mitzvah of establishing the Jewish calendar.
We know that Rosh Hashanah, which we celebrate on the first of the month of Tishrei, is the head of the year. But the months, we actually count from Nissan. What this means is that when the Chumash talks about an event that takes place in the third month, we calculate the third month from Nissan. Thus, when the Chumash says that the Torah was given in the third month it means the third month counting from Nissan – Nissan, Iyar, Sivan. The months are counted from Nissan even though the year starts at Tishrei. Tishrei itself is referred to as hachodesh hashvi’i, “the seventh month” counting from Nissan.
Counting up to Shabbos
The Ramban, Rabbi Moshe Ben Nachman, one of our great commentators on the Chumash, points out the significance of Nissan being the first month of the Jewish calendar. There is a seemingly small difference between Hebrew and English in terms of the days of the week, but this difference highlights our value system and worldview. In English we refer to the days of the week by names – Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, etc. In Hebrew, however, we do not have names for the days of the week. The only day of the week that has a name is Shabbos, and the rest of the days of the week are called by their ordinal numbers, not names: yom rishon, “the first day”; yom sheini, “the second day”; yom shlishi, “the third day” etc. Why do we give the days of the week numbers and not names?
Quoting from the Talmud to support his interpretation, the Ramban says that our naming-by-number system is there to give central importance to Shabbos. Shabbos is the culmination of the week, and therefore we count from Shabbos to Shabbos: yom rishon, “the first day” from Shabbos; yom sheini, “the second day” from Shabbos, and so on. Shabbos is the focus and by calling the days of the week by their ordinal numbers, we think about Shabbos on any given day. Shabbos is at the front and center because it really goes to the heart of what Judaism is all about. It represents our affirmation that G-d created the world and symbolises our faith in Him. By numbering the days of the week in relation to Shabbos we fulfil the fourth Commandment, Zachor et yom haShabbat lekadsho, “remember the day of Shabbos to keep it holy.”
The Ten Commandments are written twice in the Chumash, once in Exodus and once in Deuteronomy. In Exodus the commandments say Zachor et yom haShabbat lekadsho, “remember Shabbos to keep it holy.” In Deuteronomy it says Shamor et yom haShabbat lekadsho, “observe the Shabbos to keep it holy.” These two terms, zachor and shamor, refer to the two aspects of Shabbat: remembering and observing. The remembering is the positive commandment, while the observing is the negative commandment to refrain from doing any melacha, the halachic definition of work, of which the Torah lists 39 specific categories.
Zachor, to remember Shabbos to keep it holy, is fulfilled in a number of ways. One of the ways is by saying Kiddush. When we say Kiddush on Friday night and Havdalah on Saturday night, we are sanctifying Shabbos and acknowledging that its level of holiness is different than that of the rest of the week.
But another way of remembering Shabbos and keeping it holy is actually during the week. The Talmud discusses how we can actually think about the holiness of Shabbos and even prepare for it during the week. The Ramban says that by naming the days of the week in accordance with their order in relation to Shabbos, it actually reminds us all the time of the importance of Shabbos.
Zachor in Hebrew means to remember but it also means to mention. The Ramban explains that this is the same with the months. The reason why they have numbers – rishon, sheini, shlishi, first, second, third – is because they remind us of the great miracle of going out of Egypt by listing Nissan as the first month of the year. This is the month that we went out of Egypt. The next month is counted from the time we went out of Egypt, and so the third. It links each month to the Exodus from Egypt, by mentioning each month in relation to Nissan.
The names of the months commemorate the great miracles of returning from exile
The Ramban mentions another interesting point and that is that nowadays – and this dates back to the time of the rebuilding of the Second Temple – we have names for the months. This month, as said earlier, is Nissan, though that name – and the names of all the other months – are not mentioned in the Chumash. The names of the months are actually Persian; they are not even Hebrew in origin. They come from the time of the rebuilding of the Second Temple when the Jews returned. The First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonian Empire. We went into exile in Babylon and then the Babylonian Empire was taken over by the Persians and the Medians. The whole story of Purim occurred under the control of the Persian Empire, which overtook the Babylonian Empire. King Achashveirosh whom we read about in the Megilla on Purim was married to Vashti, who was a direct descendant of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. There was a merging of these empires after the Persians and Medians took over. The Jews only came out of that exile and rebuilt the Second Temple after the events of Purim. In order to remember the great miracles, the redemption from the Babylonian-Persian exile, their return to Israel and the rebuilding of the Second Temple, says the Ramban, the Jews renamed the months based on these Persian names. This, he says, fulfils the verse that says that one day we will also remember not only the going out of Egypt but the going out of the Babylonian-Persian Empire.
This is why the names of the months were changed from numbers to names – Persian names. But the concept is the same. We are trying to remember all the miracles that G-d did for us, acknowledge them, give thanks for them, and keep these ideas at the forefront of our mind.
The spiritual energy of time
The Netziv, Rav Moshe Feinstein, and others ask why specifically this month was chosen as the first of the months. True, it commemorates our Exodus from Egypt, but why not choose the month of Sivan, the month we received the Torah? Is that not more important than the Exodus from Egypt? After all, the Exodus from Egypt was only for the purpose of getting the Torah at Mount Sinai. Or why not Tishrei, the month the world was created? The creation of the world is the foundation of everything. Why was Nissan chosen to be the head of the months? What about the giving of the Torah, or the creation of the world?
The Netziv of Volozhin, one of our great 19th-century commentators, explains a very interesting and important concept in relation to the Jewish calendar, which is really about the concept of time in general, from a Torah perspective: when we remember a particular event, we are not just remembering something that happened in history. When something happens for the first time, there is a spiritual energy that is released into the world and that spiritual energy is present in the world on every anniversary of that occasion. For example, why are we judged on Rosh Hashanah? Because on Rosh Hashanah there is a spiritual energy of judgment in the world because that was the day that Adam and Eve were judged. They were created on the sixth day of Creation, and on that same day they sinned, were judged, and were subsequently driven out of the Garden of Eden before Shabbos. We say in the Rosh Hashanah davening, hayom harat olam, “today the world was created,” referring to the culmination of the world with the creation of Adam and Eve. As a result, there is a spirit of judgment in the world on that day, and that is why the world is judged at that time. This is also why the month of Tishrei is the beginning of the year. Since the physical world came into being, the whole energy of the physical world is present in the month of Tishrei so we mark that as the beginning of the year.
The Netziv explains that making Nissan the first of the months is about re-experiencing the spiritual energy that was brought into the world with the birth of the Jewish People. We were born as a people on Pesach when G-d took us out of Egypt. We still had seven weeks to wait till we received the Torah and the redemption process would be complete, but we were really born as a nation, as a people, when the Exodus from Egypt took place. This spiritual energy of our birth was brought into the world in Nissan and this why Nissan is the first of the months. The birth of the Jewish People, the birth of our special relationship with G-d and our faith that He intervenes in human affairs, was brought into the world in Nissan. Therefore, every Nissan that energy comes into the world again and we feel it on Pesach. On Pesach we do not just remember what happened in the past. There is actually a spiritual energy of rebirth that comes into the world at this time and this is why it is the first of all the months.
Preparing to receive the Torah
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, one of our great Rabbinic leaders of the 20th century, has another approach. He says the first of the months should have been the month of Sivan, the month in which the Torah was given. This is the most important event. The Talmud states that G-d created the world solely in order that His Torah should come into the world, and that had we not accepted His Torah at Mount Sinai, He would have turned the world back into chaos and void. This was the only purpose for the world. Surely Sivan should have been the first of the months, no? Rabbi Feinstein explains that the month of Nissan is important because it actually lays the groundwork and prepares us for receiving the Torah. In order to receive the Torah one needs to prepare first. How do we prepare to receive the Torah?
The experience in Egypt – the suffering, pain, prayers, and redemption – were all part of preparing us, from a spiritual, moral and psychological point of view, to receive the Torah. It built character, made us humble, and deepened our faith in Hashem, all of which was necessary in preparation to receive the Torah.
Torah is not like flicking on a switch and then suddenly all the wisdom of Hashem pours into the world and transforms us. It is not just a book of wisdom that you open and read; rather, it is a process. This wisdom of Hashem will only have an impact if we are willing to prepare ourselves to receive it. Human beings need processes of preparation; we cannot just rush into anything.
There is a natural human course of preparing for change. Concerning the upheavals taking place in the Arab world on their way to democracy, Nathan Sharansky – one the great defenders of freedom in our generation – has said that the process must be one where the people are adequately prepared for democracy. A nation cannot rush into democracy if they have not experienced it before. People have to prepare, the institutions of democracy have to be established, civil society has to be set up, and the political infrastructure needs to be in place. A society that rushes into democracy without these preparations can have catastrophic consequences. So, too, any human endeavour needs a process of preparation.
We have to prepare ourselves and the more that we prepare, the more profound will be the experience. That is why the human being is compared to the earth. Human beings are called adam, from the same root as adama, the ground. The earth is pure potential; it all depends what you do with it. Likewise human beings are pure potential, and hence the comparison. What are we going to make of our lives? It depends on what we do with it. One cannot just plant a seed. The earth has to be ploughed, fertilized and watered. All of that prepares the soil to receive the seed and only then it will flourish. So, too, when we approach the wisdom of the Torah, we cannot just flick on the switch; we need to prepare ourselves. It does not mean that we spend our lives preparing, because we do have to do the mitzvot as we go along. That process of preparing and doing the mitzvot and learning Torah – all of that has to happen concurrently. But we should not think this is an automatic thing. It is not automatic; we need to work on our faith. We need to work on our mentschlichkeit, on our good character, all the time and be in a constant process of preparing to feel the Divine wisdom. Learning Torah changes a person; doing the mitzvot changes a person. But we have to prepare ourselves and think all the time how can we enhance our lives. This is why, says Rav Moshe Feinstein, Nissan was chosen to head the months: to teach us that Torah has to be prepared for.
Preparing for Pesach
In conclusion, we are now getting closer and closer to Pesach and part of the preparation is, obviously, getting the house clean and ready. But we must also get ourselves ready for Pesach. We cannot walk into Seder Night unprepared. We need to go through the Haggadah, share it with our children, study it and understand more about the festival; to look up the relevant parts in the Chumash, attend shiurim, download shiurim, go to hear the rabbi speak, or however else we may acquire more knowledge. Our experience on the nights of the Seder and our experience throughout Pesach is going to be meaningful and inspiring in direct proportion to the effort and preparation we put in. We must ensure that the preparation for Yom Tov is not just the physical preparation, but a spiritual, intellectual and emotional preparation as well.
Anything in life which is going to make an impact needs a process of preparation. This applies not only to Pesach, but to all of our festivals: we have to prepare. The more effort we put in, the more we will reap those rewards and be inspired.